“Look! I found a little lizard!”
Mariko Rivera, age 3, was scouring the thick leaves covering the ground between towering corn stalks for fresh green beans when she made the exciting discovery that led to a learning experience about ecosystems.
Mariko was one of dozens of kids at Shepherd’s Fold Child Care Center in Sierra Vista who were out on a recent sunny morning harvesting pumpkins, cucumbers, and green beans from the center’s garden, which the kids have been helping take care of for over a year.
She excitedly exclaimed that carrots and green beans are her favorite things from the garden, adding, “I want to plant a rainbow!”
While the garden may not be cultivating rainbows, more types of produce that have been planted include lettuce, peas, squash, carrots, turnips, mint, strawberries, honeysuckle, and even a grape vine, with plans for fruit trees in the near future. They even grew luffa gourds — also known as shower loofahs — and made soap-dipped loofah discs for Mother’s Day, recalled assistant director Jessica Hursh.
The garden began to be built in 2017 at Shepherd’s Fold Child Care Center, which is sponsored by Sierra Evangelical Church.
“It’s their mission, to provide quality care for low-income families,” explained supervisor Carol Hardin of the church’s relationship with the center.
Although connected with the church, First Things First is the Christain nonprofit’s primary provider of funds after tuition said Hardin, who has been with Shepherd’s Fold for 11 years.
The center’s garden is now worked on by the 50 or so kids who attend, who range in age from one to five years old.
“We knew it would be a really great interactive, nature-based, scientific area to have with the children,” described Hursch of the choice of a garden.
As children toddled out of the garden toting small pumpkins and other garden goods, director Dena Anderson explained that she wanted to expose the kids at the center to experiences that were more common when she was a kid.
“Most children nowadays aren’t raised on farms or that kind of environment. I was a farm kid, and we knew cows were milk and beef and all that, and we ask these kids and they just think food comes from the grocery store,” said Anderson.
Volunteer gardener Sandy Hall added that most of the kids were afraid to touch the dirt at first, but as evidenced by the groups of kids crouching to harvest the different plants, they now view it as a fun experience.
While the garden is educational, the kids also get to enjoy the fruit of their labors. Anderson explains that the experiences help the kids not only learn about where food comes from, but that the kids are more willing to eat new vegetables when they recognize them from the garden.
“Because it came from the garden, they planted it, they picked it, they ate it, they loved it, they want us to replant it — ‘Can we have that green stuff again?’” recalled gardener Sandy Hall about the children’s reaction to their crop of bok choy.
All of the food harvested from the garden is either sent to the kitchens to be part of the meals served at the center or used by teachers in lessons, with extra produce being given away to parents or the church congregation.
Depending on the time of year, the kids are out in the garden multiple times a week to take care of the plants. Whether by watering, pulling weeds, or planting new seeds, the kids help with all aspects of the garden.
“We go through the various seasons and the kids get to observe the life of the plant and the seasons they go through,” Hursh says.
Through working on the garden, the kids get to learn about how to care for the different plants and what they need to grow.
While the kids and staff do much of the gardening, other volunteers make the thriving garden the success that it is.
Said Hursh of Hall, “We’re lucky enough to have a master gardener as part of the congregation of the church who helps out. She’s really the life force behind the garden.”
Also there to watch the pumpkin harvesting was Pearl O’Neill, a 103-year-old gardener who grows vegetables and seeds for Hall to bring to the care center’s garden.
“I bet I’m the oldest gardener here in Sierra Vista,” she laughed. “But I really enjoy being with the little kids.”
Alex Roney, age 4, had a huge smile on his face as he ran out of the garden carrying freshly picked cucumbers.
“I like to pick them, I want to plant some more. I just put a seed right in the ground!” he exclaimed. “I like to have pumpkin patches — I’m going to go pick some more!”